The fall season is when even the most chronically plant-blind suddenly find themselves in love with leaves, staring longingly out of office windows and snapping photos of the new colors of autumn.
Those changing colors are captivating – and, sadly, it can all be over before you’ve even thought of traveling to the prime places to witness it. For foliage lovers who want to know where to go to see fall in all its finery, we’ve raked together a pile of the top leaf-peeping spots across the US.
New England is synonymous with fall colors in the US, and for good reason. If you visit at the right time, the vast sweeps of reds and golds are unmatched. Much of the credit can go to the sugar maple, native to the northeast and adjacent parts of Canada, but a host of other trees including oaks, alders and basswoods add daubs of yellows and oranges to the palette. Stowe, the unofficial – but totally justified – capital of fall color, is the perfect base camp for leafy adventures, connected to hundreds of miles of hiking and cycling trails, and boasting easy access to the highest points of Vermont's Green Mountains.
When to go in 2022: Fall-color ogling in Vermont is such a seasonal tourism draw that multiple services, such as Stowe's Foliage Finder ranking, track peak foliage locations through autumn. Stowe has a long window for leaf peeping, which can start as early as the first week of September and run through mid-October. Generally, foliage colors peak in the last week of September and the first half of October.
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Blue Ridge Parkway, North Carolina and Virginia
The autumnal equinox is the same day on every calendar in the northern hemisphere, but the trees aren’t taking any notice – they’re tracking the weather instead. The higher in elevation or the farther north you go, the sooner the colors start changing. The scenic Blue Ridge Parkway – a 469-mile road from Virginia to North Carolina that connects Shenandoah National Park and Great Smoky Mountains National Park – ranges from around 650ft to more than 6000ft in elevation, resulting in a mixture of colors and varying tree species along the route. The maples here are different from the sugar maples up north, and you get dozens of other trees, from red dogwoods and scarlet oaks to yellow persimmons and multi-colored sumacs.
When to go in 2022: Colors peak along the Blue Ridge Parkway in October, generally in the last half of the month, but it depends on the elevation. Head to higher elevations, where the leaves start changing first, for trips in early October. SmokyMountains.com has a county-by-county fall foliage prediction map, or the Virginia Department of Forestry and Appalachian State University have helpful maps that show cities, major highways and peak color dates.
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Columbia River Gorge, Oregon
Oregon – in fact, most of the western US – is known for vast evergreen forests, and when you’re on the hunt for fall colors, you’re looking for leaves that drop. Sorry, evergreens. But the forests of the West hold many surprises, especially if you follow the rivers where deciduous trees thrive. An autumn drive through the Columbia River Gorge outside Portland will greet you with fall colors from three species of maple and alder, framing the many waterfalls of the gorge, including the famous Multnomah Falls with its arching bridge. For a longer tour, take the full Mt. Hood Scenic Loop, a three- to four-hour drive that follows the Columbia River and then circles back around the snow-capped peak of Oregon’s tallest mountain, following more colors along the east fork of the Hood River.
When to go in 2022: Fall colors in this region of Oregon peak in late October. Travel Oregon has a handy guide to the leaf types, colors and maps of the state showing where to leaf peep when. To get up close to the colors, sign up for a hiking and biking adventure into the Columbia River Gorge with Around Portland Tours.
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Zion National Park, Utah
In the fall, the heavy crowds and high temperatures of summer fade away in Utah's Zion National Park, and there’s a surprise: glorious fall colors in the desert. You won’t find the vast forests all changing color at once like in New England, but what you will see is just as striking: spots of brilliant crimson maples, burnt-orange oaks and vibrant yellows of box elders and cottonwoods tracing the creeks, all set against the striking blue desert sky and pale rocks of Zion. The popular Emerald Pools trail, starting from Zion Lodge and climbing past waterfalls and crystalline pools, provides an easy tour of the deciduous trees of Zion National Park. Or lose the crowds entirely and explore the lonesome gulches of East Zion where you can have hidden maple groves all to yourself.
When to go in 2022: Zion's higher elevations peak in color in early to mid-October, but at lower elevations and along the Virgin River, which cuts through the park, colorful foliage can last until mid-November.
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Between the famed festival season of summer and the winter ski season, the Rocky Mountain town of Telluride pulls in plenty of visitors. But wedged in between is perhaps the most beautiful season of all, when the forests of aspens turn gold. They’re called quaking aspens for a reason: the slightest breeze causes their leaves to flutter and twist, making the trees look like they’re rippling with golden light. Telluride’s free public gondola takes you from the valley floor on an eight-mile ride up the mountain. You can take in the aspens from the sky and then hike down through them at your leisure.
When to go in 2022: Expect leaves in Telluride to start showing their colors from mid-September, lasting for about three weeks. Keep an eye on the Forest Service's San Juan National Forest Fall Color Report for the most up-to-date color-changing information.
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Minnesota might be known as the land of 10,000 lakes, but it’s also a land of rivers. Head east from Minneapolis and you hit Stillwater, a historic logging town on the banks of the St. Croix River overlooking Wisconsin. Stillwater is a draw year-round for its historic paddle-wheel steamboats and old-timey atmosphere, but in the autumn, the hills along the St. Croix light up with the oranges and reds of colorful fall leaves. Take in the leafy hues from one of the daily public riverboat cruises, or cross the river on the St. Croix Crossing bridge.
When to go in 2022: Fall colors usually peak in Stillwater at the end of September, but check the Minnesota Department of Natural Resource's Fall Color Finder for a regularly updated map that covers the entire state.
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If you’re seeing colors around Louisville, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve sampled too much of the local bourbon. You don’t even need to leave Kentucky’s largest city to enjoy the changing of the seasons. A stroll around the gaslamp-lit St. James Court and the Old Louisville rows of Victorian-era homes is made all the more atmospheric by the colorful fall foliage. Louisville has 50 miles of bike trails along the Ohio River and Floyds Fork, with more in the works on the long-planned 100-mile Louisville Loop path. A short drive south of the city takes you to Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest, with more than 40 miles of trails open to walkers and bikers, and a canopy tree walk that takes you 70ft up into the trees themselves.
When to go in 2022: Nearly half of Kentucky's land area is forested, and fall color changes can start as early as September in higher, mountainous regions. Color peaks in areas at lower elevations in October and can last until early November.
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Fern Canyon, California
Who decided that green leaves weren’t worthy of a trip? Fern Canyon will set the record straight. The 60ft-high sheer walls of the creek canyon set back from the California coast in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park are completely covered in dripping mosses and ferns, including spectacular five-fingered ferns. It’s easy to see why Steven Spielberg used it as a shooting location for The Lost World: Jurassic Park – it feels primordial. In the summer months, footbridges help hikers crisscross the creek, but prepare to get your feet wet the rest of the year. Despite feeling quite remote, this park can get busy, so plan to hit it early if you want quiet and people-free photos.
When to go in 2022: Typically late October into mid-November is peak leaf-peeping time. Check out the very handy California Fall Color Map here for the most up to date tracking as the leaves change.